Nothing is so important to Iceland’s cultural identity as its sagas. Transposed onto vellum leaf by anonymous scribes in the 13th and 14th centuries, these are the blood-soaked stories of the country’s settlement. Today, the best collection can be found in the Þjóðmenningarhúsið, or the Culture House.
The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, in the northwestern corner of Iceland, has been almost completely spared from the corrupting fingertips of mankind. No roads scar the landscape and there are no permanent residents, unless you count the arctic foxes which abound in its hills. We spent a long day exploring a small section of the reserve.
After our first month in Iceland, we had hardly scratched the surface. We knew Reykjavík fairly well, and had spent time on the South Coast, the Golden Circle, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Westfjords… With all the hopping from one sight to the next, we barely had the chance to relax and become familiar with the culture. So our relationship with Iceland after a month felt superficial. We were obsessed by its bizarre beauty, but needed to get to know it a bit better.
The first two things you see when approaching Djúpavík are a defunct herring factory and a shipwrecked boat just offshore: rusting shells that set a mournful tone in this tiny northern town. We made a short pit-stop here on our way to Norðurfjörður, and were entranced by Djúpavík’s melancholic beauty.
Bumpy gravel roads, killer avalanches, and jagged mountains carved out by glaciers are among the defining characteristics of the Westfjords, the giant peninsula which makes up the northwest of the country. We rented a jeep, packed our tent, and spent six days exploring one of the wildest and most remote regions in Iceland.
The three of us laced up our boots and started off in high spirits, excited for a day-long hike through the Hengill volcano range. A few hours later, I was alone on the top of a mountain, terrified and shouting until my throat was raw. This was supposed to have been an easy day out. Where had it all gone wrong? And where the hell was Brandt?
“Don’t go chasing waterfalls”. Words of advice from TLC, the greatest American girl group of the 1990s. No doubt it’s a catchy refrain, but what a terrible message! Why should three women who achieved their own dreams dissuade their fans from “chasing waterfalls”? To stick to the rivers that they’re used to? I suspect T-Boz and co. were trying to nip future competition in the bud. And it’s not just bad advice on a metaphorical level. As we’ve discovered in Iceland, waterfall-chasing can be very rewarding indeed.
Like most countries, Iceland has its share of legends from the time of its founding. But unlike most countries, Iceland’s legends are about Vikings, guaranteed to be bloody and exciting. For the uninitiated, the country’s sagas have been brought to life in the excellent Saga Museum.
The day after our soul-crushing 20-mile trek out of Hellissandur, we hopped on a bus run by Snæfellsnes Excursions which brought us around the southern coast of the peninsula. Sitting in a bus all day and basking in the awe-inspiring scenery of the Snæfellsnes without any walking involved? That was exactly what our aching bones were hoping for.